When an insurance company determines that a vehicle is totaled — that is, so badly damaged that repairing it will cost more than it’s worth — the owner may be reimbursed for its actual cash value (ACV) instead of repairs. How much insurance will pay for a totaled car varies. The exact amount depends on the insurance company, where the driver lives, how much coverage they have, and other factors.
Knowing how insurance decisions are made, and how to manage your claim, can help you prepare for this scenario after an accident.
What Makes a Car a Total Loss?
An insurance company may declare a car a “total loss” if the cost of fixing it is more than the market value, or if it wouldn’t be safe to drive the car even if the repairs were made. The insurer also may make its decision based on how your particular state defines a total loss. (You can learn more about the terms discussed here and others in our guide to car insurance terms.)
Some states use a total loss threshold (TLT) to determine if a car is totaled. In these states, the damage must exceed a certain percentage of the car’s value. Missouri, for example, has an 80% TLT — which means if you were in an accident and your car worth $10,000 required more than $8,000 in repairs, your car could be declared a total loss. The repairs wouldn’t exceed the actual cash value of the vehicle, but they would exceed the state’s TLT. (Iowa has the lowest TLT in the U.S. at 50%. Colorado and Texas have the highest, with a TLT of 100%.)
Many states use a total loss formula (TLF) to declare a vehicle totaled. With this method, if the cost of repairs plus the salvage value of the car exceeds its actual cash value, the car is totaled.
If the insurance company thinks the damage could end up being more extensive than the adjuster’s initial estimate, it may use a lower threshold for declaring a total loss than what the state requires.
What Types of Insurance Coverage Pay for a Totaled Car?
Whether your insurance will pay for a total loss (and how much it will pay) depends on your policy. This is when smart personal insurance planning pays off. There are a few types of coverage that might kick in if your car is totaled.
This coverage pays for damage to your own vehicle or property. That can include damage caused by crashing into another vehicle or running off the road and into a tree or fence. Even if you’re responsible for the accident, collision coverage will pay for the repairs, minus the deductible amount you’ve chosen. (Learn more about the types of deductibles in insurance.)
If you are found to be at-fault, however, you can expect your car insurance premiums to go up after an accident.
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Comprehensive insurance covers losses caused by something other than a collision, such as a weather event, hitting an animal, theft, or vandalism.
Property Damage Liability Coverage
This coverage pays for damage to your vehicle (or other property) if you’re in an accident and the other driver is found to be at fault.
Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage
If you’re in an accident and the other driver is at fault but isn’t insured or doesn’t have sufficient insurance, this coverage can cover your repairs.
New Car Replacement Coverage
With new car replacement coverage, if your car is totaled, your insurer will pay to replace your damaged car with a brand-new car of the same make and model (minus your deductible). Drivers looking for lower car insurance premiums tend to go with this extra, but it can save you big money in the event of an accident.
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If you owe more on your car loan or lease than what your insurance says your totaled car is worth, you could end up having to pay the difference. GAP coverage, short for Guaranteed Auto Protection, can help “bridge the gap” between your insurance settlement and what you still owe.
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How Does an Insurance Company Decide How Much to Pay Out?
After an accident, you can expect your insurance company to assign an adjuster to handle your case. The adjuster will check out your damaged car and, as part of the assessment, determine the cost of repairs and if the car is worth repairing.
If it’s totaled, the adjuster will assign the car a value based on its pre-crash condition and what similar models are selling for. The “actual cash value” you receive will factor in the car’s age, wear and tear (inside and out), the car’s mileage, equipment you may have added, etc.
The payment you receive will help you buy a new car, but it probably won’t be enough for a new model of the same car (unless you have new car replacement coverage). And it may not be enough to pay off your loan or lease (unless you have GAP coverage).
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What Steps Should a Car Owner Take If a Car Is Totaled?
There are a few things that need to happen to get you back on the road ASAP after a serious accident:
Contact Your Insurance Company
No matter who’s at fault for your car’s damage, you should notify your insurance company immediately. Most insurance companies are available 24/7 to take your claim by phone, online, or app.
Assess the Damage
The insurance company will send an adjuster to inspect your car and estimate the cost of repairs.
Calculate Your Car’s Fair Market Value
The insurance adjuster will do some research to determine your car’s fair market value — and you can do some homework, too. You can use the Kelley Blue Book to get an idea of what your car was worth before the accident (using the make, model, mileage, and when you bought your car). Or you can check online to see what similar cars in your area are selling for.
Contact Your Lender
If you’re still paying off your car loan, or you’re in a lease, you should inform the financing company that the car was damaged. It’s also important to keep making payments until you settle your insurance claim, so you don’t hurt your credit.
Negotiate Your Insurance Company’s Payout
If you can convince the insurance company that your car was more valuable than the amount they’re offering, they may adjust the payment you receive. The insurer may ask you to provide paperwork that shows the car was worth more, so it’s a good idea to keep your receipts and maintenance documentation. Or you may decide to hire a private appraiser to see if you can get a higher estimate. (You’ll have to pay for this service yourself.)
Get Your Payment — And a New Car
If you own the car outright, the insurance company will send you the money — often within a few days. You can use it to shop for a replacement.
When you have a car loan, your insurer will send the appropriate payoff amount to your lender and the rest (if applicable) to you. If you have a lease, the insurer will send the payment to the leasing company.
What Happens to a Totaled Vehicle After Filing a Claim?
Generally, after an insurance company decides a car is a total loss, it will take possession of the vehicle and, when the claim is settled, sell it as salvage. But the car’s final destination may depend on state regulations and whether the owner wants the car back.
Can You Keep a Totaled Vehicle?
You can talk to your insurer about the possibility of buying back the totaled vehicle if you want to keep it for sentimental reasons, or because you think you can fix it or use it for parts. This is allowed in some states, but you may have to work with the local DMV to complete the purchase.
If you hope to get the car back on the road, you can expect to go through several more steps. It will have to be fixed and pass an inspection, and you’ll have to get a new title. You’ll also have to register the car and insure it.
If that turns out to be a few too many hoops to jump through, you may end up selling it to a junkyard yourself. Or you can sell the parts to interested individuals. You also may be able to donate the car to a local charity.
Before you negotiate with your insurer to get your car back, you might want to check on whether it’s legal in your state and — if you plan to drive it again — what kind of insurance you can get on a car that’s been declared a total loss.
Can I Decide If My Car Is Totaled?
No. The insurance company must decide if the damaged vehicle is a total loss based on its value and the cost of repairs.
Understanding Your Coverage
Being in a serious collision can be stressful, whether you’re responsible or someone else is determined to be at fault. You may be hurt or hospitalized. Understanding how car insurance works, and what it will and won’t cover, can help you prepare. And it might take your stress down a notch in the aftermath of an accident.
An accident may prompt you to reassess how much auto insurance you really need. After all, more coverage means higher premiums, and vice versa.
An online insurance marketplace can help you decide what types of coverage you want, and whether getting GAP coverage or a policy with rental car reimbursement coverage is a good strategy. Your lender or leasing company, as well as your state, also may have specific requirements for how much insurance you must carry.
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If your car is so badly damaged in an accident that the cost to repair it will be more than it’s worth, your insurer may decide to declare the vehicle a total loss. This means the insurer will give you the car’s actual cash value (based on its condition just before the accident) instead of paying to have it fixed.
Of course, you’ll only receive payment if you have the right kind of insurance coverage. Even then, the settlement likely won’t be enough for you to replace your wrecked car with a new car of the same make and model. Also, if you owe more on your car loan or lease than your insurance says your totaled vehicle is worth, you can end up having to pay the difference.
If you want to be proactive about your insurance coverage, SoFi can help you compare your current auto insurance policy to what other top insurers are offering. SoFi will walk you through the process of getting the right coverage for your needs.
How do insurance adjusters determine the value of a car?
An insurance adjuster will assign the car a value based on its pre-crash condition and what similar models are selling for. The “actual cash value” will factor in the car’s age, wear and tear, mileage, and other equipment you may have added, including the condition of the tires.
What happens if insurance doesn’t pay enough?
You can try to negotiate with the insurer to get a higher payout, but you should expect to back up your request with documentation. Or you may decide to hire a private appraiser to give you a second opinion of the car’s value.
What happens when your car is totaled and you still owe money?
If you’re still making payments on your car when it’s totaled, the insurance company will send the appropriate payoff amount to your lender and the rest of your settlement to you. If the insurance payment isn’t enough to cover what you owe, you may have to pay the difference.
Photo credit: iStock/Jorge Villalba
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